Coin Rivet recently sat down with renowned blockchain inventor Keir Finlow-Bates to learn more about the trials and tribulations of being an inventor in the blockchain space.
Based in Finland, Keir is well-versed in the art of creation, having been a named inventor on 32 patents so far.
He first became aware of cryptocurrency and blockchain back in 2009 while working at Atheros – which has since been acquired by Qualcomm – where a colleague recommended he read Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper on Bitcoin.
By 2015, he was running a blog following how the crypto and blockchain phenomenon had grown.
After being laid off by Qualcomm, he thought to himself: “Why don’t I go and actually do something with this technology, because I really enjoy it!”
After Qualcomm, Keir went on to found one of Finland’s earliest blockchain start-ups – Chainfrog – and began filing various blockchain patents.
Initially, he spent his time informing others about blockchain, running workshops for companies that were interested in learning more and talking at universities.
Keir then had the idea for a product – a piece of middleware to help bridge together different databases in different locations around the world over a blockchain.
“As it happens, trying to sell blockchain middleware software in a database market doesn’t fly because the database world is a late adopter,” Keir reveals.
“I made a mistake there in going after the wrong market. So, Chainfrog was basically put on hold and we found everybody that was working for me other employment. It’s now basically an IP holding company – we have five granted patents and another 15 or so in pending.”
Since then, he has established Thinklair, a company through which he can do everything he loves – namely inventing.
Finland’s patent award scheme
Keir explained how Finland is one of three “rather unusual” countries where companies have to pay you a reward for taking one of your inventions.
“I’m a named inventor on 32 patents, I think, and they cover things from satellite navigation, IoT (Internet of Things), autonomous cars, and now blockchain patents,” says Keir.
During his time at Qualcomm, Keir was involved in various meetings and patent review boards. He decided to take the opportunity to gain some free education and learn how patents work.
Across three or four years, the inventor read up on what you have to do to get a patent, and he now has the knowledge to draft his own without a third party. Typically, if you want a patent attorney to draft, file, and prosecute a software patent for you, you are looking at a cost between £10,000 to £20,000.
“But if you do it yourself, it’s just your time and $800 – so it’s a big difference.”
Chainfrog was meant to be a software product company, and while it did have product, it didn’t sell.
Through this experience, Keir learnt that “if you’re the CEO of a small software start-up, you really have to be keen on sales and marketing”.
“When I started, I didn’t know the difference between what sales and marketing was, and I discovered through two and a half years that selling isn’t something I’m passionate about.
“That’s another reason why Chainfrog wrapped up really. Rather than go and set up another start-up, I thought I’d focus on what I really love, which is inventing. It’s easier to push your own inventions than to sell an investing product.”
Revoking keys, the magic hash, and self-authenticating RFID chips
Keir has various patents in the works, but he could only discuss three granted ones – all of which present novel and innovative solutions to current issues in blockchain and cryptography.
One of these patents is the concept of announcing and revoking cryptographic keys. When sending Bitcoin, for example, the transaction could be made to either a random address that doesn’t exist or even to a compromised address.
“Bitcoin doesn’t have what we have in banking, which is you can’t send money to a non-existent bank account that you just made up and similarly you can cancel a credit card if it gets stolen.”
These are the issues that the concept of announcing and revoking cryptographic keys will tackle.
“You have to announce your address before anyone can send funds to it and you can cancel an address if it gets compromised, and I think that’s an important piece that’s missing from cryptocurrency in general,” reveals Keir.
Another patent the inventor is working on is publishing a hash of a digital file on a blockchain. This pertains to software update binaries or proving that you have written a novel.
“The key with this one is that the document contains a pointer within it to the location of the blockchain of the hash.
“My CTO used to refer to this as the ‘magic hash’ patent because he always had to go and look up how the hell I did it. Because of course, if you have a pointer in a document to the location of the hash, when you hash the document, it’s a hash of the document plus the hash.
“So it’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario, and I found a clever way of managing that.”
The two previous patents belong to Chainfrog, but the “big one” Keir is currently working on belongs to Thinklair.
The problem he is solving relates to the cloning of tags. Keir patented a system whereby you load data onto an RFID tag which has symmetric cryptography.
He then determined a way to emulate an asymmetric key cryptography mechanism which enables the tags to authentic themselves in an open way.
“So I think this patent has supply chain applications, proving whether anything from high-end luxury bags all the way down to bottles of whiskey or cartons of cigarettes are fakes.”
‘Helsinki is not a Nordic Silicon Valley by any means’
When quizzed on the popularity of cryptocurrency and blockchain in Finland, the inventor replied: “It’s a funny one because LocalBitcoins is a Finnish company and they were interested in Bitcoin early on. But the tech industry, in general, seems to be focused on one of three things.”
Keir believes the three areas of technology Finland is focused on are AI, video games, and software contracting.
“So, regarding blockchain, it’s not such a great country for it to be honest. It’s not as vibrant a scene as Berlin, London, Switzerland, or even Estonia.
“The Finns are not big on taking risks – Helsinki is not a Nordic Silicon Valley by any means. They tend to wait until something proves itself and then they rely on their well-educated engineers and workforce to make sure they execute it well.
“I’ve noticed it’s becoming a lot more mainstream and accepted. Some of the negative air that attached itself to blockchain because of the early problems with Mt Gox and Silk Road is disappearing. They’re now history, and blockchain has more respectability.
“I think in two to three years’ time, then Finland may actually take it more seriously. But by then, the whole world would have. Finland is not going to be a blockchain leader by any means, I predict.”